Cy Twombly: Defeating linear thinking

My Cy Twombly project is now at an end – I handed it in on Thursday – so I thought it would probably be a good idea to just put down my thoughts about what it achieved, given that it changed direction so much over the course of the project, and my thinking about what it achieved changed vastly just through the process of writing the thing up.

The project started out as a composition-based exploration of how visual arts techniques and elements could be directly ‘translated’ into music, my idea being that I might possibly be able to use these translated elements to compose music in the same way that these things go together in visual art. My previous posts cover this part of the project in some detail and while they’ve rendered some possibly-useful things (the Kandinsky-based cipher to convert lines and angles into music may be of use in the future) the last two pieces, Mushrooms VI and VII are the ones that have really made an impact on me.

Mushroom VI collage, by Caitlin Rowley

Following the mess-making of Mushrooms III, IV and V, I made another two collage-scores with the specific aim of then rendering them as notated music. Initially, I was thinking of this process as being basically creating an interpretation of a graphic score, just written down.

However, working through them, I found that I was thinking in quite different ways about these collages and how I was extracting music from them. I found I was using them more like reference tables, like tools – not as a source I was trying to render in a different form, but like something I was mining for details which I was then working with in my usual fashion.

It’s hard to explain and I spent half a day on Wednesday tearing my hair out trying to work out the difference between what I feel I was doing and interpreting a graphic score, and I think the difference comes down to the role I feel the collages play in this process. They are not the piece. They are something I’m using to create the piece. While I went through a brief period of thinking that possibly the collage should be as legitimate a source of the piece as the notated version (in much the same way as Carrion Comfort exists as both notated orchestral piece and graphic score for any forces), in the end I felt that neither of these two collages really WERE the pieces I’d made – and indeed could well be used to create other pieces.

The most important factor I found in working like this was that it completely overcame my resistance to working linearly. I’m beginning to suspect that the linear approach is what may make it difficult for me to write longer pieces, why so much of my music up until this year was only about three minutes long. I find it difficult to keep everything in my head when I’m working from start to finish, but working with the collages, seeing all the fragments of music I was working with laid out visually, it made new connections and made me see how each small fragment might be extended, combined with other fragments, and so on. To the extent that I was finding so many ideas in these collages, that both pieces’ durations are dictated pretty much solely by the fact that I had to have them ‘finished’ in order to workshop them. Mushroom VII, in particular, I feel was just getting going when I cut it off.

So I’m definitely going to use this process again – indeed AM using this process again, on a piece for vocal quartet plus four-hand piano that I’m working on. I’ve used a visual approach to cut down the text (a poem written by my father) to be appropriate for a 5-minute piece and am about to embark upon the next stage in the visual process, which will involve identifying the key parts of the text for repetition and emphasis using the same visual method. Looking forward to seeing how this works in the ‘real world’!

2 Replies to “Cy Twombly: Defeating linear thinking”

  1. Hi Caitlin, I’ve been really enjoying reading your reports from the composition coal-face. Re linear thinking, back in 2000 I got a newspaper review of a large scale piece of mine describing it as “sprawling”. Thinking about it, the reviewer was exactly right—it was seven or so small sections tacked together. Since then I’ve taken more of a top-down approach to many of my compositions: working out an overall structure, then ‘filling in the gaps’. So I might need to compose 23 bars modulating from C to D using a particular line of text. If something seems tricky or impossible, I think about it more until I come up with a solution. The good news is that there is always a solution!

    Having a structure you can take in all at once is an excellent aid. My lecturer used to spread his score around the room on the floor to be able to take it all in at once. Good luck with the quartet-piano piece!

    1. Thanks, Vaughan! Always great to hear about other composers’ processes. I’ve worked from visual maps for a while now, although they tend to be about mapping levels of intensity rather than actual key changes – have always been rather haphazard where it comes to harmony, although I’m trying to be a bit more organised now 🙂 Love the idea of your lecturer spreading his score around the room – I’ve been tempted by this before! I like Morton Feldman’s approach too of working on vertical manuscript then stepping back to look at it as if it were a painting.

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